Interview: Midwife

PHOTO BY VINCENT MITCHELL

The songs of Denver-based artist Midwife – aka Madeline Johnston – are lights in the fog, warm and expansive, with choruses cutting through the drear of hampered fidelity. Distortion smothers voices. Guitars crumble into analogue decay. There’s something both brutal and wonderfully sincere to how these pieces must persist, like flickering candle flames, amidst the bluster of uncertainty and analogue damage: unsettled by the noise, clinging to a faith in the anthemic sincerity of the signal.

Below, Madeline and I discuss nocturnal nature, transcendental slowcore and her wonderful new album Like Author, Like Daughter.

I’ve been re-reading the articles/accounts of the abrupt shutdown of Denver DIY venues Glob and Rhinoceropolis late last year, and I can’t begin to imagine how horrible it must have been to go through all of this. I’d be interested to know what Rhinoceropolis meant to you, and the relationship between Like Author, Like Daughter and your experiences at Rhinoceropolis.

Rhinoceropolis is one of the longest running DIY spaces in the country at this point, active for over 10 years. I began going there in 2009 when I first moved to Denver.

This place has been a constant in my life, and is a place I consider to be the center of the universe. I believe it is here that my “coming of age” story takes place, whatever that really means. This is one of very few places I have ever felt at home, in the truest sense of the expression.

At Rhinoceropolis, Denver’s fringe community has a place to work and grow together.

I moved into Rhinoceropolis in May of 2015. The landscape of the warehouse is unlike any other living situation I’ve encountered. I began to let go of everyday necessities. This was difficult at times but also a vital part of the process, because it allowed the primary focus to be about my work. I learned a lot about myself. Learned a lot about Denver. Learned a lot about art.

I started recording my own music for the first time in my life soon after I moved in. This was a game changer for me. The living environment was also very driving as a creative force. I worked so hard there. I worked my ass off mostly alone in my small room learning how to record my music. I began working on a new record which later became Midwife. This ended up becoming my main project during my time as a Rhinoceropolis resident.

There’s a real fragility and warmth to the production of this record; it always feels possible to trace the path back from the guitars to the human being behind them. Could you tell me a bit about the recording process for the album? Where was it recorded, and did you do anything in particular to capture the instruments in a state of such intimacy?

Like Author, Like Daughter was recorded at Rhinoceropolis in the middle of the night. Because the space had no windows, I became nocturnal in nature. I found it difficult to find any alone time amidst the chaos of the environment, and at a certain point began staying up all night to work on recording. These were the moments I felt calm and could return to the center within myself. These were the moments I could experience silence and focus, and I loved and cherished them.

About half the record was made like this, and the other half was recorded at my friend Tucker Theodore’s home studio in Olympia, WA. We recorded on a four-track, which I think gives it a lot of this warm analogue tone, then used the computer to add more layers. Tucker helped produce the record and I’m so grateful to have worked with him. I think a lot of creative choices were made during this process I would have not found on my own, elevating the project to the next level.

It’s hard to articulate this, but I think a lot of the intimate production simply comes from the amount of time I spent with these songs. I grew up with them a little, as I was writing and recording them numerous changes took place around me. It became a time capsule about navigating this period of time, these emotional landscapes.

It was my diary.

You’ve already played several of these songs live. Given that the record features so many hidden layers and embellishments, how do you approach transposing this material into the performance setting?

I actually have been playing it live in a very different way. I approach the set as a stripped down version of the recordings. I’m playing guitar and singing and that’s it. It’s really freeing to get back to a simple singer/songwriter approach, something I’ve not sat with in a long time.

I’m at this weird point with my music where all I really want to do is write solid pop songs: songs that are simple that can hold their own, while occupying a much larger space around them.

The artwork for the record is a photograph of a tattered, abandoned mattress. I’ve drawn my own connections between this image and the theme of this record, but what is it about the image that made it appropriate for the cover of Like Author, Like Daughter?

I think it’s somewhat obvious, but most of the themes present in the record are about intimacy in some way. I think the mattress symbolizes emotional abandonment.

You also make music under Sister Grotto, and I see that you’ve got a show under that name coming up next week. What was the reason for adopting a new moniker for this new record? Are there ways in which you perceive Sister Grotto and Midwife to be distinct from one another, either in terms of sound or the intention behind them?

Absolutely. I chose to adopt distinctive names for each project because I find them to be completely different from one another. Sister Grotto is a transcendental slowcore project, focusing on long form pieces, using repetition, simplicity, and drone. Midwife is the chaotic counterpart to Sister Grotto – it’s busy, driven by layered guitar, I think it’s more outwardly emotional in its form. I wanted to make something completely different. I aimed to make a shoegaze pop album.

What other music are you listening to at the moment?

My favourite thing right now is Planning For Burial’s Matawan – Collected Works 2010-2014

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m going to do a month long Midwife tour this September/October around the Midwest and East Coast. I’ll be performing at a few festivals along the way: DIO Fest in Lincoln, NE, Dismal Niche in Columbia, MO, and Gatas Y Vatas in Albuquerque, NM.

I’m also currently working on completing a four-song Sister Grotto EP called Prayer Hands, which will appear on a box set compilation this fall released by PSI Labs.